Sunday, October 14, 2007

Akhmatova and the Art of Translation

First a confession: I avoid reading poems in translation. Usually when the issue of Poetry comes that's all translations, I toss it aside. I don't think I'm a xenophobe, but I can't help feeling that there's so much poetry to read in English that I'll never get to it all. Then if I start adding translations to the pile, that pile really will become insurmountable. Plus, there's the suspicion that when I read a poem in translation I'm not getting the real poem. I feel like I'm reading it through a veil, through someone else's eyes. And yet several years ago when I was part of a group of poets and we were each handed a packets of poems without poets' names and told to select one for oral reading, I selected one in translation. That was the one I liked best. So I have this little conflict going on.

Before reading Akhmatova's poems, I read Stanley Kunitz's "Notes on the Translations." He says, "The poet as translator lives with a paradox. His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination." So the translator also faces a conflict: he must "respect the text" and at the same time "make it new." I mentioned in my last post that the collection, Poems of Akhmatova, contains only 40 poems, yet Kunitz reveals that it took five years to complete the translations! He goes on to say that "Translation is a sum of approximations, but not all approximations are equal." He points out the difficulty involved in dealing with Russian word order, of maintaining the sense and still achieving clarity. He says that the challenge is to "produce an analogous poem in English out of available signs and sounds, a new poem sprung from the matrix of the old, drenched in memories of its former existence . . ." He refers to another Russian poet, Nikolai Zabolotski, who said that translating poetry was "like rebuilding a city out of the evidence of its ruins."

Kunitz talks also about the difficulty involved in translating Akhmatova's formal poems and acknowledges that one of the sacrifices is in rendering metrical and rhyming patterns. These simply do not transfer from one language to another. So instead "of rhyme, our ear is often better pleased by an instrumentation of off-rhyme, assonance, consonance, and other linkages."

With Kunitz's wise words in my mind, I then turned to the poems. Here's another one I like.

July 1914

All month a smell of burning, of dry peat
smoldering in the bogs.
Even the birds have stopped singing,
the aspen does not tremble.

The god of wrath glares in the sky,
the fields have been parched since Easter.
A one-legged pilgrim stood in the yard
with his mouth full of prophecies:

"Beware of terrible times . . . the earth
opening for a crowd of corpses.
Expect famine, earthquakes, plagues,
and heavens darkened by eclipses.

"But our land will not be divided
by the enemy at his pleasure:
the Mother-of-God will spread
a white shroud over these great sorrows."

From the burning woods drifts
the sweet smell of juniper.
Widows grieve over their brood,
the village rings with their lamentation.

If the land thirsted, it was not in vain,
nor were the prayers wasted;
for a warm red rain soaks
the trampled fields.

Low, low hangs the empty sky,
tender is the voice of the supplicant:
"They wound Thy most holy body,
They are casting lots for Thy garments."

We can see the poet's growth here. The poem is more fully developed, more intense, more impassioned. Akhmatova now uses a good deal of dialogue. I noticed this as characteristic of her work. And obviously, this poem is political.

One more:

"Why Is This Age Worse . . . ?"

Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
In a stupor of grief and dread
have we not fingered the foulest wounds
and left them unhealed by our hands?

In the west the falling light still glows,
and the clustered housetops glitter in the sun,
but here Death is already chalking the doors with crosses,
and calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.

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